There’s an Onion story from 2001, “Teen Who Just Discovered Led Zeppelin Starting to Piss Off Friends,” that has become a modern classic. The band, of course, formed in 1968, and produced one of the seminal sounds of its generation. The story is hilarious because we all know that guy — the one who’s super late to the party, although instead of just walking in and acting like he’s been there, he can’t contain the urge to explain in detail to everyone what they’ve been doing, despite them getting there before him. He acts like he gets it, which only affirms exactly how much he doesn’t.
In the case of Katharine Zaleski, it’s not Led Zeppelin that she’s just uncovered, but how it is to have a child while trying to maintain a career outside the home. In a recent commentary she wrote for Fortune, Zaleski admits, “I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with … I didn’t realize how horrible I’d been [to working moms] — until I had a child of my own.”
The tales of her (mis)behavior are cringe-worthy, even if the specifics are not exactly groundbreaking. The way she describes having looked at working moms through a smarmy lens is precisely how so many of us have long been judged, frowned upon, and discriminated against just because we dared to birth children while also holding down a job. Now that she has a child, though, Zaleski feels bad — as she should.
She’s particularly embarrassed about the time she “didn’t disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she ‘got pregnant.'” She details how she slandered the work ethic of women with children and passed on opportunities that involved working with moms because she questioned their ability to commit (as if motherhood isn’t proof enough of the ultimate commitment). By her own account, she conducted herself in a way that would have made it impossible for a co-worker with children to find any work-life balance.
Zaleski admits she was horrible, even if her astonishing pattern of dismissal and disdain didn’t occur to her until giving birth. Her about-face is in line with an unsettling pattern among younger women like her who know how to do it better and often think their drive to succeed is unique. That is, until they, too, want to step off and then back on the career track only to realize they’re stuck in the same old shit so many working moms before them have also had to wade through. The only difference is this time it’s even worse because it’s happening to them.
Nonetheless, as Zaleski finally sees the light, those of us working moms who’ve had our eyes wide open for a while now will still grant her entrance into our club. She might not have known she was ever going to be a member, but we’ve been waiting for her, as well as plenty of others just like her. Zaleski’s disclosures will not earn her a round of applause, nor will we hold her abominations against her. After all, if we start blacklisting people who have turned up their noses at our motherhood badges, we’d have a very small pool of co-workers from which to choose.
As someone who struggled painfully to not give up on my career following the birth of my children, I’ve met plenty of Katharine Zaleskis (including the actual Katharine Zaleski — we met six years ago when she approached me to do some writing for The Huffington Post). I could have even been a Katharine Zaleski before I had kids, except I wasn’t. Starting practically at birth, my mom modeled an effortless, elegant empathy at every turn, while my dad instilled in me how not entitled I was, telling me often that I needed to earn everything coming to me the old-fashioned way. They both made sure my integrity was in tact, as if every last person I encountered held part of the key to my future, which would be based on how much respect I projected during our exchanges. I wasn’t (and am still not) a picture of perfection, but compassion and insight are proudly among my strong suits.
Perhaps it’s a generational difference — how I was in my 20s vs. how today’s 20-somethings are. They never doubt that their stories are exceptional, and therefore the ones that matter most. Hopefully, though, the noxious culture perpetrated by so many Millennials will start trending in a more mindful direction, because, as Zaleski said, they are “hurting their future selves” (and, you know, others in the present). As one who speaks safely from the future, I can vouch for the fact that it’s a lot better if you can avoid public apologies for how you previously treated people like garbage — especially since you might be the last to realize you’re actually the one who stinks, and that kind of stench can be awfully hard to wash away.
What sets Zaleski apart from some of her haughty peers, though, and what is eminently commendable about her story, is the company she co-founded after giving birth, Power to Fly, which places tech-savvy women in flexible positions. She said she hopes it will help girls such as her daughter to not “feel trapped like [she did].” It would seem equally valuable, though, if Zaleski also worked to raise her daughter with values that might have skipped a generation, including abundant consideration for others and their struggles (even if she might never experience similar strife), more tolerance, and less scorn.More On